Tuning of Strouhal number for high propulsive efficiency accurately predicts how wingbeat frequency and stroke amplitude relate and scale with size and flight speed in birds

Robert L. Nudds, Graham K. Taylor, Adrian L. R. Thomas

Abstract

The wing kinematics of birds vary systematically with body size, but we still, after several decades of research, lack a clear mechanistic understanding of the aerodynamic selection pressures that shape them. Swimming and flying animals have recently been shown to cruise at Strouhal numbers (St) corresponding to a regime of vortex growth and shedding in which the propulsive efficiency of flapping foils peaks (StfA/U, where f is wingbeat frequency, U is cruising speed and Absin(θ/2) is stroke amplitude, in which b is wingspan and θ is stroke angle). We show that St is a simple and accurate predictor of wingbeat frequency in birds. The Strouhal numbers of cruising birds have converged on the lower end of the range 0.2 < St < 0.4 associated with high propulsive efficiency. Stroke angle scales as θ ≈ 67b−0.24, so wingbeat frequency can be predicted as fSt. U/bsin(33.5b−0.24), with St = 0.21 and St = 0.25 for direct and intermittent fliers, respectively. This simple aerodynamic model predicts wingbeat frequency better than any other relationship proposed to date, explaining 90% of the observed variance in a sample of 60 bird species. Avian wing kinematics therefore appear to have been tuned by natural selection for high aerodynamic efficiency: physical and physiological constraints upon wing kinematics must be reconsidered in this light.

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